HELBECK OF BANNISDALE
MRS. HUMPHRY WARD
... metus ille ... Acheruntis ... Funditus humanam qui vitam turbat ab imo
In two volumes
BOOK III (continued)
BOOK III Continued
HELBECK OF BANNISDALE
"Look out there! For God's sake, go to your places!"
The cry of the foreman reached the ears of the clinging women. They fell apart—each peering into the crowd and the tumult.
Mounted on a block of wood about a dozen yards from them—waving his arm and shouting to the stream of panic-stricken workmen—they saw the man who had been their guide through the works. Four white-hot ingots, just uncovered, blazed deserted on their truck close to him, and a multitude of men and boys were pushing past them, tumbling over each other in their eagerness to reach the neighbourhood of the furnace. The space between the ingots and some machinery near them was perilously narrow. At any moment, those rushing past might have been pushed against the death-bearing truck. Ah! another cry. A man's coat-sleeve has caught fire. He is pulled back—another coat is flung about him—the line of white faces turns towards him an instant—wavers—then the crowd flows on as before.
Another man in authority comes up also shouting. The man on the block dismounts, and the two hold rapid colloquy. "Have they sent for Mr. Martin?" "Aye." "Where's Mr. Barlow?" "He's no good!" "Have they stopped the mills?" "Aye—there's not a man'll touch a thing—you'd think they'd gone clean out of their minds. There'll be accidents all over the place if somebody can't quiet 'em."
Suddenly the buzzing groups behind the foreman parted, and a young broad-shouldered workman, grimed from head to foot, his blue eyes rolling in his black face, came staggering through.
"Gie ma a drink," he said, clutching at the old woman; "an let ma sit down!"
He almost fell upon an iron barrow that lay face downwards on the path. Laura, sitting crouched and sick upon the ground, raised her head to look at him. Another man, evidently a comrade, followed him, took the mug of cold tea from the old woman's shaking hand, lifted his head and helped him drink it.
"Blast yer!—why ain't it spirits?" said the youth, throwing himself back against his companion. His eyes closed on his smeared cheeks; his jaw fell; his whole frame seemed to sink into collapse; those gazing at him saw, as it were, the dislocation and undoing of a man.
"Cheer up, Ned—cheer up," said the older man, kneeling down behind him—"you'll get over it, my boy—it worn't none o' your fault. Stand back there, you fellows, and gie im air."
"Oh, damn yer! let ma be," gasped the young fellow, stretching himself against the other's support, like one who feels the whole inner being of him sick to death, and cannot be still for an instant under the anguish.
The woman with the tea began to cry loudly and ask questions. Laura rose to her feet, and touched her.
"Don't cry—can't you get some brandy?" Then in her turn she felt herself caught by the arm.
"Miss Fountain—Miss Laura—I can get you out of this!—there's a way out here by the back."
Mason's white countenance showed over her shoulder as she turned.
"Not yet—can't anyone find some brandy? Ah!"
For their guide came up at the moment with a bottle in his hand. It was Laura who handed him the mug, and it was she who, stooping down, put the spirit to the lips of the fainting workman. Her mind seemed to float in a mist of horror, but her will asserted itself; she recovered her power of action sooner than the men around her. They stared at the young lady for a moment; but no more. The one hideous fact that possessed them robbed all else of meaning.
"Did he see it?" said Laura to the man's friend. Her voice reached no ear but his. For they were surrounded by two uproars—the noise of the crowd of workmen, a couple of thousand men aimlessly surging and shouting to each other, and the distant thunder of the furnace.
"Aye, Miss. He wor drivin the tub, an he saw Overton in front—it wor the wheel of his barrer slipped, an soomthin must ha took him—if he'd ha let goa straight theer ud bin noa harm doon—bit he mut ha tried to draw it back—an the barrer pulled him right in."
"He didn't suffer?" said Laura eagerly, her face close under his.
"Thank the Lord, he can ha known nowt aboot it!—nowt at aw. The gas ud throttle him, Miss, afore he felt the fire."
"Is there a wife?"
"Noa—he coom here a widower three weeks sen—there's a little gell——"
"Aye! they be gone for her an t' passon boath," said another voice; "what's passon to do whan he cooms?"
"Salve the masters' consciences!" cried a third in fury. "They'll burn us to hell first, and then quieten us with praying."
Many faces turned to the speaker, a thin, wiry man one of the "agitators" of the town, and a dull groan went round.
* * * * *
"Make way there!" cried an imperious voice, and the crowd between them and the entrance side of the shed began to part. A gentleman came through, leading a clergyman, who walked hurriedly, with eyes downcast, holding his book against his breast.
There was a flutter of caps through the vast shed. Every head stood bared, and bent. On went the parson towards the little platform with the railway. The furnace had sunk somewhat—its roar was less acute—— Laura looking at it thought of the gorged beast that falls to rest.
But another parting of the throng—one sob!—the common sob of hundreds.
"It's t' little gell, Ned! t' little gell!" said the elder workman to the youth he was supporting.
And there in the midst of the blackened crowd of men was a child, frightened and weeping, led tenderly forward by a grey-haired workman, who looked down upon her, quite unconscious of the tears that furrowed his own cheeks.
"Oh, let me—let me go!" cried Laura. The men about her fell back. They made a way for her to the child. The old woman had disappeared. In an instant Laura, as of right, took the place of her sex. Half an hour before she had been the merest passing stranger in that vast company; now she was part of them, organically necessary to the act passing in their midst. The men yielded her the child instinctively, at once; she caught the little one in her sheltering arm.
"Ought she to be here?" she asked sharply of the grey-haired man.
"They're goin to read the Burial Service, Miss," he said, as he dashed away the mist from his eyes. "An we thowt that the little un would like soom day to think she'd been here. So I found her—she wor in school."
The child looked round her in terror. The platform in front of the furnace had been hurriedly cleared. It was now crowded with men—masters and managers in black coats mingled with workmen, to the front the parson in his white. He turned to the throng below and opened his book.
"I am the Resurrection and the Life."
A great pulsation passed through the mob of workmen. On all sides strong men broke down and wept.
The child stared at the platform, then at these faces round her that were turned upon her.
"Daddy—where's Daddy?" she said trembling, her piteous eyes travelling up and down the pretty lady beside her.
Laura sat down on the edge of a truck and drew the little shaking creature to her breast. Such a power of tenderness went out from her, so soft was the breast, so lulling the scent of the roses pinned into the lady's belt, that the child was stilled. Every now and then, as she looked at the men, pressing round her, a passion of fear seemed to run through her; she shuddered and struggled in Laura's hold. Otherwise she made not a sound. And the great words swept on.
* * * * *
How the scene penetrated!—leaving great stabbing lines never to be effaced in the quivering tissues of the girl's nature. Once before she had heard the English Burial Service. Her father—groaning and fretting under the penalties of friendship—had taken her, when she was fifteen, to the funeral of an old Cambridge colleague. She remembered still the cold cemetery chapel, the gowned mourners, the academic decorum, or the mild regret amid which the function passed. Then her father's sharp impatience as they walked home—that reasonable men in a reasonable age should be asked to sit and listen to Paul's logic, and the absurdities of Paul's cosmical speculations!
And now—from what movements, what obscurities of change within herself, had come this new sense, half loathing, half attraction, that could not withdraw itself from the stroke, from the attack of this Christian poetry—these cries of the soul, now from the Psalms, now from Paul, now from the unknown voices of the Church?
Was it merely the setting that made the difference—the horror of what had passed, the infinite relief to eye and heart of this sudden calm that had fallen on the terror and distraction of the workmen—the strangeness of this vast shed for church, with its fierce perpetual drama of assaulting flame and flying shadow, and the gaunt tangled forms of its machinery—the dull glare of that distant furnace that had made so little—hardly an added throb, hardly a leaping flame! of the living man thrown to it half an hour before, and seemed to be still murmuring and growling there, behind this great act of human pity, in a dying discontent?
Whence was it—this stilling, pacifying power?
All around her men were sobbing and groaning, but as the wave dies after the storm. They seemed to feel themselves in some grasp that sustained, some hold that made life tolerable again. "Amens" came thick and fast. The convulsion of the faces was abating; a natural human courage was flowing back into contracted hearts.
"Blessed are the dead—for they rest from their labours—" "as our hope is this our brother doth."
Laura shivered. The constant agony of the world, in its constant search for all that consoles, all that eases, laid its compelling hand upon her. By a natural instinct she wrapped her arms closer, more passionately, round the child upon her knee.
* * * * *
"Won't she come?" said Mason.
He and Seaton were standing in the downstairs parlour of a small house in a row of workmen's cottages, about half a mile from the steel works.
Mason still showed traces, in look and bearing, of the horror he had witnessed. But he had sufficiently recovered from it to be conscious into the bargain of his own personal grievance, of their spoilt day, and his lost chances. Seaton, too, showed annoyance and impatience; and as Polly entered the room he echoed Mason's question.
Polly shook her head.
"She says she won't leave the child till the last moment. We must go and have our tea, and come back for her."
"Come along then!" said Mason gloomily, as he led the way to the door.
The little garden outside, as they passed through it, was crowded with women discussing the accident, and every now and then a crowd would gather on the pavement and disperse again. To each and all the speakers, the one intolerable thing was the total disappearance of the poor lost one. No body—no clothes—no tangible relic of the dead: it was a sore trial to customary beliefs. Heaven and hell seemed alike inconceivable when there was no phantom grave-body to make trial of them. One woman after another declared that it would send her mad if it ever happened to any belonging of hers. "But it's a mercy there's no one to fret—nobbut t' little gell—an she's too sma'." There was much talk about the young lady that had come home with her—"a nesh pretty-lukin yoong creetur"—to whom little Nelly clung strangely—no doubt because she and her father had been so few weeks in Froswick that there had been scarcely time for them to make friends of their own. The child held the lady's gown in her clutch perpetually, Mr. Dixon reported—would not lose sight of her for a moment. But the lady herself was only a visitor to Froswick, was being just taken through the works, when the accident happened, and was to leave the town by an evening train—so it was said. However, there would be those left behind who would look after the poor lamb—Mrs. Starr, who had taken the tea to the works, and Mrs. Dixon, the Overtons' landlady. They were in the house now; but the lady had begged everyone else to keep outside.
The summer evening crept on.
At half-past six Polly with Hubert behind her climbed the stairs of the little house. Polly pushed open the door of the back room, and Hubert peered over her shoulder.
Inside was a small workman's room, with a fire burning, and the window wide open. There were tea-things on the table; a canary bird singing loudly in a cage beside the window; and a suit of man's clothes with a clean shirt hanging over a chair near the fire.
In a rocking-chair by the window lay the little girl—a child of about nine years old. She was quite colourless, but she was not crying. Her eyes still had the look of terror that the sight of the works had called up in them, and she started at every sound. Laura was kneeling beside her, trying to make her drink some tea. The child kept pushing the tea away, but her other hand held fast to Laura's arm. On the further side of the table sat two elderly women.
"Laura, there's only just time!" said Polly softly, putting her head through the door.
The child started painfully, and the cup Laura held was with difficulty saved from falling.
Laura stooped and kissed the little one's cheek.
"Dear, will you let me go now? Mrs. Dixon will take care of you—and I'll come and see you again soon."
Nelly began to breathe fast. She caught Laura's sleeve with both hands.
"Don't you go, Miss—I'll not stay with her." She nodded towards her landlady.
"Now, Nelly, you must be a good girl," said Mrs. Dixon, rising and coming forward—she was a strange, ugly woman, with an almost bald head—"you must do what your poor papa wud ha wished you to do. Let the lady go, an I'll take care on you same as one o' my own, till they can come and take you to the House."
"Oh! don't say that!" cried Laura.
But it was too late. The child had heard the word—had understood it.
She looked wildly from one to the other, then she threw herself against the side of the chair, in a very madness of crying. Now, she pushed even Laura away. It seemed as though at the sound of that one word she had felt herself indeed forsaken, she had become acquainted with her grief.
Laura's eyes filled with tears.
Polly, standing at the door, spoke to her in vain.
* * * * *
"There's another train—Mr. Seaton said so!" Laura threw the words over her shoulder as though in anger. Hubert Mason stood behind her. In her excitement it seemed to her that he was dragging her by force from this sobbing and shrieking misery before her.
"I don't believe he's right. I never heard of any train later than the 7.10," said Mason, in perplexity.
"Go and ask him."
Mason went away and returned.
"Of course he swears there is. You won't get Seaton to say he's mistaken in a hurry. All I know is I never heard of it."
"He must be right," said Laura obstinately. "Don't trouble about me—send a cab. Oh!"
She put her hands to her ears for an instant, as they stood by the door, as though to shut out the child's cries. Hubert looked down upon her, hesitating, his face flushed, his eyes drawn and sombre.
"Now—you'll let me take you home, Miss Laura? It'll be very late for you. I can get back to-morrow."
She looked up suddenly.
"No, no!" she said, almost stamping. "I can get home alone quite well. I want no one."
Then she caught the lad's expression—and put her hand to her brow a moment.
"Come back for me now at any rate—in an hour," she said in another voice. "Please take me to the train—of course. I must go then."
"Oh, Laura, I can't wait!" cried Polly from the stairs—"I wish I could. But mother's sending Daffady with the cart—and she'd be that cross."
Laura came out to the stairway.
"Don't wait. Just tell the carriage—mind"—she hung over the banisters, enforcing the words—"tell them that I'm coming by the later train. They're not to send down for me again—I can get a cab at the inn. Mind, Polly,—did you hear?"
She bent forward, caught Polly's assent, and ran back to the child.
* * * * *
An hour later Mason found Laura with little Nelly lying heavily asleep in her arms. At sight of him she put finger on lip, and, rising, carried the child to her bed. Tenderly she put her down—tenderly kissed the little hand. The child's utter sleep seemed to soothe her, for she turned away with a smile on her blanched lips. She gave money to Mrs. Starr, who was to nurse the little one for a week, and then, it seemed to Mason, she was all alacrity, all eagerness to go.
"Oh! but we're late!" she said, looking at her watch in the street. And she hastily put her head out of the window and implored the cabman to hurry.
Mason said nothing.
The station, when they reached it, was in a Saturday night ferment. Trains were starting and arriving, the platforms were packed with passengers.
Mason said a word to a porter as they rushed in. The porter answered; then, while they fled on, the man stopped a moment and looked back as though about to run after them. But a dozen passengers with luggage laid hands upon him at once, and he was left with no time for more than the muttered remark:
"Marsland? Why, there's no train beyond Braeside to-night."
"No. 4 platform," said Hubert to his companion. "Train just going." Laura threw off her exhaustion and ran.
The guard was just putting his whistle to his lips. Hubert lifted her into her carriage.
"Good-bye," she said, waving to him, and disappeared at once into a crowd of fellow-passengers.
"Right for Marsland?" cried Hubert to the guard.
The guard, who had already whistled, waved his flag as he replied:
"Marsland? No train beyond the junction to-night."
Hubert paused for a moment, then, as the train was moving briskly out, sprang upon the foot-board. A porter rushed up, the door was opened, and he was shoved in amid remonstrances from front and rear.
The heavily laden train stopped at every station—was already nearly an hour late. Holiday crowds got in and out; the platforms were gay with talk and laughter.
Mason saw nothing and heard nothing. He sat leaning forward, his hat slouched over his eyes. The man opposite thought he had fallen asleep.
Whose fault was it? Not his! He might have made sure? Why, wasn't Seaton's word good enough? She thought so.
Why hadn't he made sure?—in that interval before he came back for her. She might have stayed at Froswick for the night. Plenty of decent people would have put her up. He remembered how he had delayed to call the cab till the last moment.
... Good God! how could a man know what he had thought! He was fair moidered—bedazzled—by that awful thing—and all the change of plans. And there was Seaton's word for it. Seaton was a practical man, and always on the railway.
What would she say—when the train stopped? In anticipation he already heard the cry of the porters—"Braeside—all change!" The perspiration started on his brow. Why, there was sure to be a decent inn at Braeside, and he would do everything for her. She would be glad—of course she would be glad to see him—as soon as she discovered her dilemma. After all he was her cousin—her blood relation.
And Mr. Helbeck? The lad's hand clenched. A clock-face came slowly into view at a wayside station. 8.45. He was now waiting for her at Marsland. For the Squire himself would bring the trap; there was no coachman at Bannisdale. A glow of fierce joy passed through the lad's mind, as he thought of the Squire waiting, the train's arrival, the empty platform, the returning carriage. What would the Squire think? Damn him!—let him think what he liked.
* * * * *
Meanwhile, in another carriage, Laura leant back with shut eyes, pursued by one waking dream after another. Shadow and flame—the whirling sparks—the cry!—that awful wrenching of the heart in her breast—the parting crowd, and the white-faced child, phantom-like, in its midst. She sat up, shaken anew by the horror of it, trying to put it from her.
The carriage was now empty. All the other travellers had dismounted, and she seemed to be rushing through the summer night alone. For the long daylight was nearly done. The purple of the June evening was passing into the more mysterious purple of the starlight; a clear and jewelled sky hung softly over valleys with "seaward parted lips," over woods with the wild rose bushes shining dimly at their edge; over knolls of rocky ground, crowned with white spreading farms; over those distant forms to the far north where the mountains melted into the night.
Her heart was still wrung for the orphaned child—prized yesterday, no doubt—they said he was a good father!—desolate to-day—like herself. "Daddy!—where's Daddy?" She laid her brow against the window-sill and let the tears come again, as she thought of that trembling cry. For it was her own—the voice of her own hunger—orphan to orphan.
And yet, after this awful day—this never to be forgotten shock and horror—she was not unhappy. Rather, a kind of secret joy possessed her as the train sped onward. Her nature seemed to be sinking wearily into soft gulfs of reconciliation and repose. Froswick, with its struggle and death, its newness and restlessness, was behind her—she was going home, to the old house, with its austerity and peace.
Home? Bannisdale, home? How strange! But she was too tired to fight herself to-night—she let the word pass. In her submission to it there was a secret pleasure.
... The first train had come in by now. Eagerly, she saw Polly on the platform—Polly looking for the pony cart. Was it old Wilson, or Mr. Helbeck? Wilson, of course! And yet—yet—she knew that Wilson had been away in Whinthorpe on farm business all day. And Mr. Helbeck was careful of the old man. Ah well! there would be something—and someone—to meet her when she arrived. Her heart knew that.
Now they were crossing the estuary. The moon was rising over the sands, and those far hills, the hills of Bannisdale. There on the further bank were the lights of Braeside. She had forgotten to ask whether they changed at the junction—probably the Marsland train would be waiting.
The Greet!—its voice was in her ears, its many channels shone in the flooding light. How near the hills seemed!—just a moonlight walk along the sands, and one was there, under the old tower and the woods. The sands were dangerous, people said. There were quicksands among them, and one must know the paths. Ah! well—she smiled. Humdrum trains and cabs were good enough for her to-night.
She hung at the open window, looking down into the silver water. How strange, after these ghastly hours, to feel yourself floating in beauty and peace—a tremulous peace—like this? The world going your way—the soul yielding itself to fate—taking no more painful thought for the morrow——
* * * * *
"Braeside! All change!"
Laura sprang from the carriage. The station clock opposite told her to her dismay that it was nearly half-past eleven.
"Where's the Marsland train?" she said to the porter who had come forward to help her. "And how dreadfully late we are!"
"Marsland train, Miss! Last one left an hour ago—no other till 6.12 to-morrow morning."
"What do you mean? Oh! you didn't hear!—it's the train for Marsland I want."
"Afraid you won't get it then, Miss, till to-morrow. Didn't they warn you at Froswick? They'd ought to. This train only makes the main-line connection—for Crewe and Rugby—no connection Whinthorpe way after 8.20."
Laura's limbs seemed to waver beneath her. A step on the platform. She turned and saw Hubert Mason.
Mason thought she would faint. He caught her arm to support her. The porter looked at them curiously, then moved away, smiling to himself.
Laura tottered to the railing at the back of the platform and supported herself against it.
"What are you here for?" she said to him in a voice—a voice of hatred—a voice that stung.
He glanced down upon her, pulling his fair moustache. His handsome face was deeply flushed.
"I only heard there was no train on, from the guard, just as you were starting; so I jumped into the next carriage that I might be of some use to you here if I could. You needn't look at me like that," he broke out violently—"I couldn't help it!"
"You might have found out," she said hoarsely.
"Say you believe I did it on purpose!—to get you into trouble!—you may as well. You'd believe anything bad about me, I know."
Already there was a new note in his voice, a hoarse, tyrannous note, as though he felt her in his power. In her terror the girl recalled that wild drive from the Browhead dance, with its disgusts and miseries. Was he sober now? What was she to do?—how was she to protect herself? She felt a passionate conviction that she was trapped, that he had planned the whole catastrophe, knowing well what would be thought of her at Bannisdale—in the neighbourhood.
She looked round her, making a desperate effort to keep down exhaustion and excitement. The main-line train had just gone, and the station-master, with a lantern in his hand, was coming up the platform.
Laura went to meet him.
"I've made a mistake and missed the last train to Marsland. Can I sit here in the station till the morning?"
The station-master looked at her sharply—then at the man standing a yard or two behind her. The young lady had to his eye a wild, dishevelled appearance. Her fair hair had escaped its bonds in all directions, and was hanging loose upon her neck behind. Her hat had been crumpled and bent by the child's embracing arms; the little muslin dress showed great smears of coal-dust here and there, and the light gloves were black.
"No, Miss," he said, with rough decision. "You can't sit in the station. There'll be one more train down directly—the express—and then we shut the station for the night."
"How long will that be?" she asked faintly. He looked at his watch.
"Thirty-five minutes. You can go to the hotel, Miss. It's quite respectable."
He gave her another sharp glance. He was a Dissenter, a man of northern piety, strict as to his own morals and other people's. What on earth was she doing here, in that untidy state, with a young man, at an hour going on for midnight? Missed train? The young man said nothing about missed trains.
But just as he was turning away, the girl detained him.
"How far is it across the sands to Marsland station?"
"Eight miles, about—shortest way."
"And the road?"
"Best part of fifteen."
He walked off, throwing a parting word behind him.
"Now understand, please, I can't have anybody here when we lock up for the night."
Laura hardly heard him. She was looking first to one side of the station, then to the other. The platform and line stood raised under the hill. Just outside the station to the north the sands of the estuary stretched bare and wide under the moon. In the other direction, on her right hand, the hills rose steeply; and close above the line a limestone quarry made a huge gash in the fell-side. She stood and stared at the wall of glistening rock that caught the moon; at the little railing at the top, sharp against the sky; at the engine-house and empty trucks.
Suddenly she turned back towards Mason. He stood a few yards away on the platform, watching her, and possessed by a dumb rage of jealousy that entirely prevented him from playing any rational or plausible part. Her bitter tone, her evident misery, her refusal an hour or two before to let him be her escort home—all that he had feared and suspected that morning—during the past few weeks,—these things made a dark tumult about him, in which nothing else was audible than the alternate cries of anger and passion.
But she walked up to him boldly. She tried to laugh.
"Well! it is very unlucky and very disagreeable. But the station-master says there is a respectable inn. Will you go and see, while I wait? If it won't do—if it isn't a place I can go to—I'll rest here while you ask, and then I shall walk on over the sands to Marsland. It's eight miles—I can do it."
"No, you can't."—His voice had a note of which he was unconscious, a note that increased the girl's fear of him.—"Not unless you let me take you. And I suppose you'd sooner die than put up with another hour of me!—The sands are dangerous. You can ask them."
He nodded towards the men in the distance.
She put a force on herself, and smiled. "Why shouldn't you take me? But go and look at the inn first—please!—I'm very tired. Then come and report."
She settled herself on a seat, and drew a little white shawl about her. From its folds her small face looked up softened and beseeching.
He lingered—his mind half doubt, half violence, He meant to force her to listen to him—either now, or in the morning. For all her scorn, she should know, before they parted, something of this misery that burnt in him. And he would say, too, all that it pleased him to say of that priest-ridden fool at Bannisdale.
She seemed so tiny, so fragile a thing as he looked down upon her. An ugly sense of power came to consciousness in him. Coupled with despair, indeed! For it was her very delicacy, her gentlewoman's grace—maddeningly plain to him through all the stains of the steel works—that made hope impossible, that thrust him down as her inferior forever.
"Promise you won't attempt anything by yourself—promise you'll sit here till I come back," he said in a tone that sounded like a threat.
He still hesitated. Then a glance at the sands decided him. How, on their bare openness, could she escape him?—if she did give him the slip. Here and there streaks of mist lay thin and filmy in the moonlight. But as a rule the sands were clear, the night without a stain.
"All right. I'll be back in ten minutes—less!"
She nodded. He hurried along the platform, asked a question or two of the station-master, and disappeared.
She turned eagerly to watch. She saw him run down the road outside the station—past a grove of trees—out into the moonlight again. Then the road bent and she saw him no more. Just beyond the bend appeared the first houses of the little town.
She rose. Her heart beat so, it seemed to her to be a hostile thing hindering her. A panic terror drove her on, but exhaustion and physical weakness caught at her will, and shod her feet with lead.
She walked down the platform, however, to the station-master.
"The gentleman has gone to inquire at the inn. Will you kindly tell him when he comes back that I have made up my mind after all to walk to Marsland? He can catch me up on the sands."
"Very good, Miss. But the sands aren't very safe for those that don't know 'em. If you're a stranger you'd better not risk it."
"I'm not a stranger, and my cousin knows the way perfectly. You can send him after me."
She left the station. In her preoccupation she never gave another thought to the station-master.
But there was something in the whole matter that roused that person's curiosity. He walked along the raised platform to a point where he could see what became of the young lady.
There was only one exit from the station. But just outside, the road from the town passed in a tunnel under the line. To get at the sands one must double back on the line after leaving the station, walk through the tunnel, and then leave the road to your right. The stony edge of the sands came up to the road, which shot away eastwards along the edge of the estuary, a straight white line that gradually lost itself in the night.
The man watching saw the small figure emerge. But the girl never once turned to the tunnel. She walked straight towards the town, and he lost sight of her in a dense patch of shadow made by some overhanging trees about a hundred yards from the station.
"Upon my word, she's a deep 'un!" he said, turning away; "it beats me—fair."
"Hi!" shouted the porter from the end of the platform. "There's a message just come in, sir."
The station-master turned to the telegraph office in some astonishment. It was not the ordinary signal message, or the down signal would have dropped.
He read off. "If a lady arrives by 10.20, too late for Marsland train, kindly help her make arrangements for night. Direct her to White Hart Inn, tell her will meet her Marsland first train. Reply. Helbeck, Bannisdale."
The station-master stared at the message. It was, of course, long after hours, and Mr. Helbeck—whose name he knew—must have had considerable difficulty in sending the message from Marsland, where the station would have been shut before ten o'clock, after the arrival of the last train.
Another click—and the rattle of the signal outside. The express was at hand. He was not a man capable of much reasoning at short notice, and he had already drawn a number of unfavourable inferences from the conduct of the two people who had just been hanging about the station. So he hastily replied:
"Lady left station, said intended to walk by sands, but has gone towards town. Gentleman with her."
Then he rushed out to attend to the express.
* * * * *
But Laura had not gone to the town. From the platform she had clearly seen a path on the fell-side, leading over some broken ground to the great quarry above the station. The grove of trees had hidden the starting of the path from her, but some outlet into the road there must be; she had left the station in quest of it.
And as soon as she reached the trees a gate appeared in the wall to the left. She passed through it, and hurried up the steep path beyond it. Again and again she hid herself behind the boulders with which the fell was strewn, lest her moving figure should be seen from below—often she stopped in terror, haunted by the sound of steps, imagining a breath, a voice, behind her.
She ran and stumbled—ran again—tore her light dress—gulped down the sob in her throat—fearing at every step to faint, and so be taken by the pursuer; or to slip into some dark hole—the ground seemed full of them—and be lost there—still worse, found there!—wounded, defenceless.
But at last the slope is climbed. She sees before her a small platform, on a black network of supporting posts—an engine-house—and beyond, truck lines with half-a-dozen empty trucks upon them, lines that run away in front of her along the descending edge of the first low hill she has been climbing.
Further on, a dark gulf—then the dazzling wall of the quarry. A patch of deepest, blackest shadow, at the seaward end of the engine-house, caught her eye. She gained it, sank down within it, strengthless and gasping.
Surely no one could see her here! Yet presently she perceived beside her a low pile of planks within the shadow, and for greater protection crept behind them. Her eyes topped them. The whole lower world, the roofs of the station, the railway line, the sands beyond, lay clear before her in the moon.
Then her nerve gave way. She laid her head against the stones of the engine-house and sobbed. All her self-command, her cool clearness, was gone. The shock of disappointment, the terrors of this sudden loneliness, the nightmare of her stumbling flight coming upon a nature already shaken, and powers already lowered, had worked with miserable effect. She felt degraded by her own fears. But the one fear at the root of all, that included and generated the rest, held her in so crippling, so torturing a vice, that do what she would, she could not fight herself—could only weep—and weep.
And yet supposing she had walked over the sands with her cousin, would anybody have thought so ill of her—would Hubert himself have dared to offer her any disrespect?
Then again, why not go to the inn? Could she not easily have found a woman on whom to throw herself, who would have befriended her?
Or why not have tried to get a carriage? Fifteen miles to Marsland—eighteen to Bannisdale. Even in this small place, and at midnight, the promise of money enough would probably have found her a fly and a driver.
But these thoughts only rose to be shuddered away. All her rational being was for the moment clouded. The presence of her cousin had suddenly aroused in her so strong a disgust, so hot a misery, that flight from him was all she thought of. On the sands, at the inn, in a carriage, he would still have been there, within reach of her, or beside her. The very dream of it made her crouch more closely behind the pile of planks.
The moon is at her height; across the bay, mountains and lower hills rise towards her, "ambitious" for that silver hallowing she sheds upon shore and bay. The night is one sigh of softness. The rivers glide glistening to the sea. Even the shining roofs of the little station and the white line of the road have beauty, mingle in the common spell. But on Laura it does not work. She is in the hall at Bannisdale—on the Marsland platform—in the woodland roads through which Mr. Helbeck has driven home.
No!—by now he is in his study. She sees the crucifix, the books, the little altar. There he sits—he is thinking, perhaps, of the girl who is out in the night with her drunken cousin, the girl whom he has warned, protected, thought for in a hundred ways—who had planned this day out of mere wilfulness—who cannot possibly have made any honest mistake as to times and trains.
She wrings her hands. Oh! but Polly must have explained, must have convinced him that owing to a prig's self-confidence they were all equally foolish, equally misled. Unless Hubert—? But then, how is she at fault? In imagination she says it all through Polly's lips. The words glow hot and piteous, carrying her soul with them. But that face in the oak chair does not change.
Yet in flashes the mind works clearly; it rises and rebukes this surging pain that breaks upon it like waves upon a reef. Folly! If a girl's name were indeed at the mercy of such chances, why should one care—take any trouble? Would such a ravening world be worth respecting, worth the fearing?
It is her very innocence and ignorance that rack her. Why should there be these mysterious suspicions and penalties in the world? Her mind holds nothing that can answer. But she trembles none the less.
How strange that she should tremble! Two months before, would the same adventure have affected her at all? Why, she would have laughed it down; would have walked, singing perhaps, across the sands with Hubert.
Some secret cause has weakened the will—paralysed all the old daring. Will he never even scold or argue with her again? Nothing but a cold tolerance—bare civility and protection for Augustina's sake? But never the old rare kindness—never! He has been much away, and she has been secretly bitter, ready to revenge herself by some caprice, like a crossed child! But the days of return—the hours of expectation, of recollection!
Her heart opens to her own reading—like some great flower that bursts its sheath. But such pain—oh, such pain! She presses her little fingers on her breast, trying to drive back this humiliating truth that is escaping her, tearing its way to the light.
How is it that contempt and war can change like this? She seems to have been fighting against something that all the time had majesty, had charm—that bore within itself the forces that tame a woman. In all ages the woman falls before the ascetic—before the man who can do without her. The intellect may rebel; but beneath its revolt the heart yields. Oh! to be guided, loved, crushed if need be, by the mystic, whose first thought can never be for you—who puts his own soul, and a hundred torturing claims upon it, before your lips, your eyes! Strange passion of it!—it rushes through the girl's nature in one blending storm of longing and despair....
... What sound was that?
She raised her head. A call came from the sands—a distant call, floating through the night. Another—and another! She stood up—she sprang on the heap of planks, straining her eyes. Yes—surely she saw a figure on that wide expanse of sand, moving quickly, moving away? And one after another the cries rose, waking dim echoes from the shore.
It was Hubert, no doubt—Hubert in pursuit, and calling to her, lest she should come unawares upon the danger spots that marked the sands.
She stood and watched the moving speck till it was lost in a band of shadow. Then she saw it no more, and the cries ceased.
Would he be at Bannisdale before she was? She dashed away her tears, and smiled. Ah! Let him seek her there!—let him herald her. Light broke upon her; she began to rise from her misery.
But she must sleep a little, or she would never have the strength to begin her walk with the dawn. For walk she would, instead of waiting for tardy trains. She saw herself climbing the fell—she would never trust herself to the road, the open road, where cousins might be hiding after all—finding her way through back lanes into sleeping villages, waking someone, getting a carriage to a point above the park, then slipping down to the door in the garden and so entering by the chapel, when entrance was possible. She would go straight to Augustina. Poor Augustina! there would be little sleep for her to-night. The tears rose again in the girl's eyes.
She drew her thin shawl round her, and crept again into the shadow of the engine-house. Not three hours, and the day would have returned. But already the dawn-breath seemed to be blowing through the night. For it had grown cold and her limbs shivered.
... She woke often in terror, pursued by sheets of flame, or falling through unfathomed space; haunted all through by a sense of doom, an awful expectancy—like one approaching some grisly Atreus-threshold and conscious of the death behind it. But sleep seized her again, a cold tormented sleep, and the hours passed.
Meanwhile the light that had hardly gone came welling gently back. The stars paled; the high mountains wrapped themselves in clouds; a clear yellow mounted from the east, flooding the dusk with cheerfulness. Then the birds woke. The diminished sands, on which the tide was creeping, sparkled with sea-birds; the air was soon alive with their white curves.
With a start Laura awoke. Above the eastern fells scarlet feather-clouds were hovering; the sun rushed upon them as she looked; and in that blue dimness to the north lay Bannisdale.
She sprang up, stared half aghast at the black depths of the quarry, beside which she had been sleeping, then searched the fell with her eyes. Yes, there was the upward path. She struck into it, praying that friend and houses might meet her soon.
Meanwhile it seemed that nothing moved in the world but she.
It was on the stroke of midnight when the message from Braeside was handed to Mr. Helbeck by the sleepy station-master, who had been dragged by that gentleman's urgency from his first slumbers in the neat cottage beside the line.
The master of Bannisdale thrust the slip of paper into his pocket, and stood an instant with bent head, as though reflecting.
"Thank you, Mr. Brough," he said at last. "I will not ask you to do anything more. Good-night."
Rightful reward passed, and Mr. Helbeck left the station. Outside, his pony cart stood tied to the station railing.
Before entering it he debated with himself whether he should drive on to the town of Marsland, get horses there and then, and make for Braeside at once.
He could get there in about a couple of hours. And then?
To search a sleeping town for Miss Fountain—would that mend matters?
A carriage arriving at two o'clock in the morning—the inn awakened—no lady there, perhaps—for what was to prevent her having found decent shelter in some quite other quarter? Was he to make a house-to-house visitation at that hour? How wise! How quenching to the gossip that must in any case get abroad!
He turned the pony homewards.
Augustina, all shawls and twitching, opened the door to him. A message had been sent on to her an hour before to the effect that Miss Fountain had missed her train, and was not likely to arrive that night.
"Oh, Alan!—where is she?"
"I got a telegram through to the station-master. Don't be anxious, Augustina. I asked him to direct her to the inn. The old White Hart, they say, has passed into new management and is quite comfortable. She may arrive by the first train—7.20. Anyway I shall meet it."
Augustina pursued him with fretful inquiries and surmises. Helbeck, pale and gloomy, threw himself down on the settle, and produced the story of the accident, so far as the garrulous and incoherent Polly had enabled him to understand it. Fresh wails on Augustina's part. What a horrible, horrible thing! Why, of course the child was terribly upset—hurt perhaps—or she would never have been so foolish about the trains. And now one could not even be sure that she had found a place to sleep in! She would come home a wreck—a simple wreck. Helbeck moved uneasily.
"She was not hurt, according to Miss Mason."
"I suppose young Mason saw her off?"
"I suppose so."
"What were they all about, to make such a blunder?"
Helbeck shrugged his shoulders, and at last he succeeded in quieting his sister, by dint of a resolute suppression of all but the most ordinary and comforting suggestions.
"Well, after all, thank goodness, Laura has a great deal of common sense—she always had," said Mrs. Fountain, with a clearing countenance.
"Of course. She will be here, I have little doubt, before you are ready for your breakfast. It is unlucky, but it should not disturb your night's rest. Please go to bed." With some difficulty he drove her there.
Augustina retired, but it was to spend a broken and often tearful night. Alan might say what he liked—it was all most disagreeable. Why!—would the inn take her in? Mrs. Fountain had often been told that an inn, a respectable inn, required a trunk as well as a person. And Laura had not even a bag—positively not a hand-bag. A reflection which was the starting-point of a hundred new alarms, under which poor Mrs. Fountain tossed till the morning.
* * * * *
Meanwhile Helbeck went to his study. It was nearly one o'clock when he entered it, but the thought of sleep never occurred to him. He took out of his pocket the telegram from Braeside, re-read it, and destroyed it.
So Mason was with her—for of course it was Mason. Not one word of such a conjunction was to be gathered from the sister. She had clearly supposed that Laura would start alone and arrive alone. Or was she in the plot? Had Mason simply arranged the whole "mistake," jumped into the same train with her, and confronted her at the junction?
Helbeck moved blindly up and down the room, traversed by one of those storms of excitement to which the men of his stock were liable. The thought of those two figures leaving the Braeside station together at midnight roused in him a madness half jealousy, half pride. He saw the dainty head, the cloud of gold under the hat, the pretty gait, the girlish waist, all the points of delicacy or charm he had worshipped through his pain these many weeks. To think of them in the mere neighbourhood of that coarse and sensual lad had always been profanation. And now who would not be free to talk, to spatter her girlish name? The sheer unseemliness of such a kinship!—such a juxtaposition.
If he could only know the true reason of that persistency she had shown about the expedition, in the face of Augustina's wailings, and his own silence? She had been dull—Heaven knows she had been dull at Bannisdale, for these two months. On every occasion of his return from those intermediate absences to which he had forced himself, he had perceived that she drooped, that she was dumbly at war with the barriers that shut her youth away from change and laughter, and the natural amusements, flatteries and courtings that wait, or should wait, on sweet-and-twenty. More than once he had realised the fever pulsing through the girl's unrest. Of course she was dissatisfied and starved. She was not of the sort that accepts the role of companion or sick nurse without a murmur. What could he do—he, into whose being she had crept with torturing power—he who could not marry her even if she should cease to hate him—who could only helplessly put land and distance between them? And then, who knows what a girl plans, to what she will stoop, out of the mere ebullience and rush of her youth—with what haloes she will surround even the meanest heads? Her blood calls her—not this man or that! She takes her decisions—behind that veil of mystery that masks the woman at her will. And who knows—-who can know? A mother, perhaps. Not Augustina—not he—nor another.
Groans broke from him. In vain he scourged himself and the vileness of his own thoughts. In vain he said to himself, "All her instincts, her preferences, are pure, guileless, delicate—I could swear it, I, who have watched her every look and motion." Temper?—yes. Caprice?—yes. A hundred immaturities and rawnesses?—yes! but at the root of all, the most dazzling, the most convincing maidenliness. Not the down-dropt eyes, the shrinking modesties of your old Christian or Catholic types—far from it. But something that, as you dwelt upon it, seemed to make doubt a mere folly.
And yet his very self-assurances, his very protests, left him in torment. There is something in the Catholic discipline on points of sex-relation that perhaps weakens a man's instinctive confidence in women. Evil and its varieties, in this field, are pressed upon his thoughts perpetually with a scholastic fulness so complete, a deductive frankness so compelling, that nothing stands against the process. He sees corruption everywhere—dreads it everywhere. There is no part of its empire, or its action, that his imagination is allowed to leave in shadow. It is the confessional that works. The devout Catholic sees all the world sub specie peccati. The flesh seems to him always ready to fall—the devil always at hand.
—Little restless proud creature! What a riddle she has been to him all the time—flitting about the house so pale and inaccessible, so silent, too, in general, since that night when he had wrestled with her in the drawing-room. One moment of fresh battle between them there has been—in the park—on the subject of old Scarsbrook. Preposterous!—that she should think for one moment she could be allowed to confess herself—and so bring all the low talk of the neighbourhood about her ears. He could hear the old man's plaintive cogitations over the strange experience which had blanched his hair and beard and brought him a visible step nearer to his end. "Soombody towd my owd woman tudther day, Misther Helbeck, at yoong Mason o' t' Browhead had been i' th' park that neet. Mappen tha'll tell me it was soom gell body he'd been coortin. Noa!—he doan't gaa about wi' the likes o' thattens! Theer was never a soun' ov her feet, Misther Helbeck! She gaed ower t' grass like a bit cloud i' summer, an she wor sma' an nesh as a wagtail on t' steeans. I ha seen aw maks o' gells, but this one bet 'em aw." And after that, to think of her pouring herself out in impetuous explanation to the old peasant and his wife! It had needed a strong will to stop her. "Mr. Helbeck, I wish to tell the truth, and I ought to tell it! And your arguments have no weight with me whatever."
But he had made them prevail. And she had not punished him too severely. A little more pallor, a little more silence for a time—that was all!
A score of poignant recollections laid hold upon him as he paced the night away. That music in the summer dusk—the softness of her little face—the friendliness—first, incredible friendliness!—of her lingering hand. Next morning he had banished himself to Paris, on a Catholic mission devised for the purpose. He had gone, torn with passion—gone, in the spirit that drives the mystic through all the forms of self-torture that religious history records—ad majorem Dei gloriam. He had returned to find her frozen and hostile as before—all wilfulness with Augustina—all contradiction with himself. The Froswick plan was already on foot—and he had furthered it—out of a piteous wish to propitiate her, to make her happy. What harm could happen to her? The sister would go with her and bring her back. Why must he always play the disobliging and tyrannical host? Could he undo the blood-relationship between her and the Masons? If for mere difficulty and opposition's sake there were really any fancy in her mind for this vulgar lad, perhaps after all it were the best thing to let her see enough of him for disenchantment! There are instincts that can be trusted.
Such had been the thoughts of the morning. They do not help him through these night hours, when, in spite of all the arguments of common sense, he recurs again and again to the image of her as alone, possibly defenceless, in Mason's company.
Suddenly he perceived that the light was changing. He put his lamp out and threw back the curtain. A pale gold was already creeping up the east. The strange yew forms in the garden began to emerge from the night. A huge green lion showed his jaw, his crown, his straight tail quivering in the morning breeze; a peacock nodded stiffly on its pedestal; a great H that had been reared upon its post supports before Dryden's death stood black against the morning sky, and everywhere between the clumsy crowding forms were roses, straggling and dew-drenched, or wallflowers in a June wealth of bloom, or peonies that made a crimson flush amid the yews. The old garden, so stiff and sad through all the rest of the year, was in its moment of glory.
Helbeck opened one of the lattices of the oriel, and stood there gazing. Six months before there had been a passionate oneness between him and his inheritance, between his nature and the spirit of his race. Their privations and persecutions, their faults, their dumb or stupid fidelities, their very vices even, had been the source in him of a constant and secret affection. For their vices came from their long martyrdom, and their martyrdom from their faith. New influences had worked upon himself, influences linking him with a more European and militant Catholicism, as compared with that starved and local type from which he sprang. But through it all his family pride, his sense of ancestry with all its stimulus and obligations, had but grown. He was proud of calamity, impoverishment, isolation; they were the scars on pilgrims' feet—honour-marks left by the oppressor. His bare and rained house, his melancholy garden, where not a bed or path had suffered change since the man who planned them had refused to comply with the Test Act, and so forfeited his seat in Parliament; his dwindling resources, his hermit's life and fare—were they not all joy to him? For years he had desired to be a Jesuit; the obligations of his place and name had stood in the way. And short of being a son of St. Ignatius, he exulted in being a Helbeck—the more stripped and despised, the more happy—with those maimed generations behind him, and the triumph of his faith, his faith and theirs, gilding the mind's horizon.
And now after just four months of temptation he stands there, racked with desire for this little pagan creature, this girl without a single Christian sentiment or tradition, the child of an infidel father, herself steeped in denial and cradled in doubt, with nothing meekly feminine about her on which to press new stamps—and knowing well why she denies, if not personally and consciously, at least by a kind of inheritance.
The tangled garden, slowly yielding its splendours to the morning light, the walls of the old house, springing sheer from the grass like the native rock itself—for the first time he feels a gulf between himself and them. His ideals waver in the soul's darkened air; the breath of passion drives them to and fro.
With an anguished "Domine, exaudi!" he snatched himself from the window, and leaving the room he crossed the hall, where the Tudor badges on the ceiling, the arms of "Elizabetha Regina" above the great hearth were already clear in the cold dawn, and made his way as noiselessly as possible to the chapel.
Those strange figures on the wall had already shaken the darkness from them. Wing rose on wing, halo on halo, each face turning in a mystic passion to the altar and its steadfast light.
Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris, qui tollis peccata mundi, suscipe deprecationem nostram. Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis.
In prayer and passionate meditation he passed through much of the time that had still to be endured. But meanwhile he knew well, in his sinful and shrinking mind, that, for that night at least, he was only praying because he could do nothing else—nothing that would give him Laura, or deliver him from the fears that shook his inmost being.
* * * * *
A little before six Helbeck left the chapel. He must bathe and dress—then to the farm for the pony cart. If she did not arrive by the first train he would get a horse at Marsland and drive on to Braeside. But first he must take care to leave a message for Mrs. Denton, whose venomous face, as she stood listening the night before to his story of Miss Fountain's mishaps, recurred to him disagreeably.
The housekeeper would not be stirring yet, perhaps, for an hour. He went back to his study to write her some short directions covering the hours of his possible absence.
The room, as he entered it, struck him as musty and airless, in spite of the open lattice. Instinctively, before writing, he went to throw another window wide. In rushed a fresh rose-scented air, and he leant forward an instant, letting its cool current flow through him.
Something white caught his eye beneath the window.
* * * * *
Laura slowly raised her head.
Had she fallen asleep in her fatigue?
Helbeck, bending over her, saw her eyes unclose. She looked at him as she had never looked before—with a sad and spiritual simplicity as though she had waked in a world where all may tell the truth, and there are no veils left between man and woman.
Her light hat fell back from her brow; her delicate pinched features, with the stamp of suffering upon them, met his look so sweetly—so frankly!
"I was very tired," she said, in a new voice, a voice of appealing trust. "And there was no door open."
She raised her small hand, and he took it in his, trembling through all his man's strength.
"I was just starting to see if the train had brought you."
"No—I walked—a great part of the way, at least. Will you help me up? It's very foolish, but I can't stand."
She rose, tottering, and leaning heavily upon his hand. She drew her own across her forehead.
"It's only hunger. And I had some milk. Was Augustina in a great way?"
"She was anxious, of course. We both were."
"Yes! it was stupid. But look—" she clung to him. "Will you take me into the drawing-room, and get me some wine—before I see Augustina?"
"Lean on me."
She obeyed, and he led her in. The drawing-room door was open, and she sank into the nearest chair. As she looked up she saw the Romney lady shining from the wall in the morning sunlight. The blue-eyed beauty looked down, as though with a careless condescension, upon the pale and tattered Laura. But Laura was neither envious nor ashamed. As Helbeck left her to get wine, she lay still and white; but in the solitude of the room while he was gone, a little smile, ghostly as the dawn itself, fluttered suddenly beneath her closed lids and was gone again.
When he returned, she did her best to drink and eat what she was told. But her exhaustion became painfully apparent, and he hung over her, torn between anxiety, remorse, and the pulsations of a frantic joy, hardly to be concealed, even by him.
"Let me wake Augustina, and bring her down!"
"No—wait a little. I have been in a quarry all night, you see! That isn't—resting!"
"I tried to direct you—I managed to telegraph to the station-master; but it must have missed. I asked him to direct you to the inn."
"Oh, the inn!" She shuddered suddenly. "No, I couldn't go to the inn."
"Why—what frightened you?"
He sat down by her, speaking very gently, as one does to a child.
She was silent. His heart beat—his ear hungered for the next word.
She lifted her tired lids.
"My cousin was there—at the junction. I did not want him. I did not wish to be with him; he had no right whatever to follow me. So I sent him to the inn to ask—and I——"
"I hid myself in the quarry while he was gone. When he came back, he went on over the sands, calling for me—perhaps he thought I was lost in one of the bad places."
She gave a little whimsical sigh, as though it pleased her to think of the lad's possible frights and wanderings.
Helbeck bent towards her.
"And so—to avoid him——?"
She followed his eye like a child.
"I had noticed a quarry beside the line. I climbed up there—under the engine-house—and sat there till it was light. You see"—her breath fluttered—"I couldn't—I couldn't be sure—he was sober. I dare say it was ridiculous—but I was so startled—and he had no business——"
"He had given you no hint—that he wished to accompany you?"
Something drove, persecuted the man to ask it in that hoarse, shaking tone.
She did not answer. She simply looked at him, while the tears rose softly in her clear eyes. The question seemed to hurt her. Yet there was neither petulance nor evasion. She was Laura, and not Laura—the pale sprite of herself. One might have fancied her clothed already in the heavenly super-sensual body, with the pure heart pulsing visibly through the spirit frame.
Helbeck rose, closed the door softly, came back and stood before her, struggling to speak. But she intercepted him. There was a look of suffering, a frown.
"I saw a man die yesterday," she said abruptly. "Did Polly tell you?"
"I heard of the accident, and that you had stayed to comfort the child."
"It seems very heartless, but somehow as we were in the train I had almost forgotten it. I was so glad to get away from Froswick—to be coming back. And I was very tired, of course, and never dreamt of anything going wrong. Oh, no! I haven't forgotten really—I never shall forget."
She pressed her hands together shuddering. Helbeck was still silent.
But it was a silence that pierced. Suddenly she flushed deeply. The spell that held her—that strange transparency of soul—broke up.
"Naturally I was afraid lest Augustina should be anxious," she said hastily, "and lest it should be bad for her."
Helbeck knelt down beside her. She sank back in her chair, staring at him.
"You were glad to be coming back—to be coming here?" he said in his deep voice. "Is that true? Do you know that I have sat here all night—in misery?"
The struggling breath checked the answer, cheeks and lips lost every vestige of their returning red. Only her eyes spoke. Helbeck came closer. Suddenly he snatched the little form to his breast. She made one small effort to free herself, then yielded. Soul and body were too weak, the ecstasy of his touch too great.
* * * * *
"You can't love me—you can't."
She had torn herself away. They were sitting side by side; but now she would not even give him her hand. That one trembling kiss had changed their lives. But in both natures, passion was proud and fastidious from its birth; it could live without much caressing.
As she spoke, he met her gaze with a smiling emotion. The long, stern face in its grizzled setting of hair and beard had suffered a transformation that made it almost strange to her. He was like a man loosed from many bonds, and dazzled by the effects of his own will. The last few minutes had made him young again. But she looked at him wistfully once or twice, as though her fancy nursed something which had grown dear to it.
"You can't love me," she repeated; "when did you begin? You didn't love me yesterday, you know—nor the day before."
"Why do you suppose I went away the day after the ghost?" he asked her slowly.
"Because you had business, or you were tired of my very undesirable company."
"Put it as you like! Do you explain my recent absences in the same way?"
"Oh, I can't explain you!" She raised her shoulders, but her face trembled. "I never tried."
"Let me show you how. I went because you were here."
"And you were afraid—that you might love me? Was it—such a hard fate?" She turned her head away.
"What have I to offer you?" he said passionately; "poverty—an elderly lover—a life uncongenial to you."
She slipped a hand nearer to him, but her face clouded a little.
"It's the very strangest thing in the world," she said deliberately, "that we should love each other. What can it mean? I hated you when I came, and meant to hate you. And"—she sat up and spoke with an emphasis that brought the colour back into her face—"I can never, never be a Catholic."
He looked at her gravely.
"That I understand."
"You know that I was brought up apart from religion, altogether?"
His eye saddened. Then he raised her hand and kissed it. The pitying tenderness of the action almost made her break down. But she tried to snatch her hand away.
"It was papa's doing, and I shall never blame him—never!"
"I have been in Belgium lately," he said, holding the hand close, "at a great Catholic town—Louvain—where I was educated. I went to an old priest I know, and to a Reverend Mother who has sent me Sisters once or twice, and I begged of them both—prayers for your father's soul."
She stared. The painful tears rushed into her eyes.
"I thought that—for you—that was all sure and settled long ago."
"I don't think you know much about us, little heretic! I have prayed for your father's soul at every Mass since—you remember that Rosary service in April?"
"And what you said to me afterwards, about the child—and doubt? I stayed long in the chapel that night. It was borne in upon me, with a certainty I shall never lose, that all was well with your poor father. Our Blessed Lord has revealed to him in that other life what an invincible ignorance hid from him here."
He spoke with a beautiful simplicity, like a man dealing with all that was most familiarly and yet sacredly real to his daily mind and thought.
She trembled. Words and ideas of the kind were still all strange and double-edged to her—suggesting on the one side the old feelings of contempt and resistance, on the other a new troubling of the waters of the heart.
She leant her brow against the back of the old sofa on which they were sitting. "And—and no prayers for me?" she said huskily.
"Dear love!—at all times—in all places—at my downsitting and mine uprising," he answered—every word an adoration.
She was silent for a moment, then she dashed the tears from her eyes.
"All the same, I shall never be a Catholic," she repeated resolutely; "and how can you marry an unbeliever?"
"My Church allows it—under certain conditions."
Her mind flew over the conditions. She had heard them named on one or two occasions during the preceding months. Then she turned away, dreading his eye.
"Suppose I am jealous of your Church and hate her?"
"No!—you will love her for my sake."
"I can't promise. There are two selves in me. All your Catholic friends—Father Leadham—the Reverend Mother—will be in despair."
She saw him wince. But he spoke firmly. "I ask only what is lawful. I am free in such a matter to choose my own path—under my conscience."
She said nothing for a little. But she pondered on all that he might be facing and sacrificing for such a marriage. Once a cloud of sudden misgiving descended upon her, as though, a bird had brushed her with its black wing. But she shook it away. Her little hand crept back to him—while her face was still hidden from him.
"I ought not to marry you—but—but I will. There—take me!—will you guide me?"
"With all my strength!"
"Will you fight me?"
He laughed. "To the best of my ability—when I must. Did I do it well—that night—about the ghost?"
She shrugged her shoulders—half laughing, half crying.
"No!—you were violent—impossible. Will you never, never let me get the upper hand?"
"How would you do it?—little atom!" He bent over her, trying to see her face, but she pressed him away from her.
"Make me afraid to mock at your beliefs!" she said passionately; "make me afraid!—there is no other way."
At last she let his arms have their will. And it was time. The exhaustion which had been driven back for the moment by food and excitement returned upon her with paralysing force. Helbeck woke to a new and stronger alarm. He half led, half carried her through the hall, on the way to Augustina.
At the foot of the stairs, as Laura was making a tottering effort to climb them with Helbeck's arm round her, Mrs. Denton came out of the dining-room straight upon them. She carried a pan and brush, and had evidently just begun her morning work.
At sight of her Laura started; but Helbeck gave her no chance to withdraw herself. He turned quietly to his housekeeper, who stood transfixed.
"Good-morning, Denton. Miss Fountain has just returned, having walked most of the way from Braeside. She is very tired, as you see—let some breakfast be got ready for her at once. And let me tell you now—what I should anyway have told you a few hours later—that Miss Fountain has promised to be my wife."
He spoke with a cold dignity, scanning the woman closely. Mrs. Denton grew very white. But she dropped a curtesy in old Westmoreland fashion.
"I wish you joy, sir—and Miss Fountain, too."
Her voice was low and mumbling, but Helbeck gave her a cheerful nod.
"Thank you. I shall be downstairs again as soon as I have taken Miss Fountain to my sister—and I, too, should be glad of some breakfast."
"He's been agate all night," said the housekeeper to herself, as she entered the study and looked at the chairs, the lamp which its master had forgotten to extinguish, the open window. "An where's she been? Who knows? I saw it from the first. It's a bewitchment—an it'll coom to noa good."
She went about her dusting with a shaking hand.
* * * * *
Augustina was not told till later in the day. When her brother, who was alone with her, had at last succeeded in making her understand that he proposed to make Laura Fountain his wife, the surprise and shock of the news was such that Mrs. Fountain was only saved from faintness by her very strongest smelling-salts.
"Alan—my dear brother! Oh! Alan—you can't have thought it out. She's her father's child, Alan, all through. How can you be happy? Why, Alan, the things she says—poor Laura!"
"She has said them," he replied.
"She can't help saying them—thinking them—it's in her. No one will ever change her. Oh! it's all so strange——"
And Augustina began to cry, silently, piteously.
Helbeck bent over her.
"Augustina!" He spoke with emotion. "If she loved, wouldn't that change her? Don't all women live by their affections? I am not worth her loving—but——"
His face shone, and spoke the rest for him.
Augustina looked at him in bewilderment. Why, it was only yesterday that Laura disliked and despised him, and that Alan hardly ever spoke when her stepdaughter was there. It was utterly incomprehensible to her. Was it another punishment from Heaven for her own wilful and sacrilegious marriage? As she thought of the new conditions and relations that were coming upon them all—the disapproval of friends, the danger to her brother's Catholic life, the transformation of her own ties to Laura, her feeble soul lost itself in fear. Secretly, she said to herself, with the natural weariness of coming age:
"Perhaps I shall die—before it happens."
Augustina was sitting in the garden with Father Bowles. Their chairs were placed under a tall Scotch fir, which spread its umbrella top between them and the sun. All around, the old garden was still full and flowery. For it was mid-September, and fine weather.
Mrs. Fountain was lying on a sort of deck-chair, and had as usual a number of little invalid appliances about her. But in truth, as Father Bowles was just reflecting, she looked remarkably well. The influences of her native air seemed so far to have brought Dr. MacBride's warnings to naught. Or was it the stimulating effect of her brother's engagement? At any rate she talked more, and with more vigour; she was more liable to opinions of her own; and in these days there was that going on at Bannisdale which provoked opinion in great plenty.
"Miss Fountain is not at home?" remarked the old priest. An afternoon gossip with Mrs. Fountain had become a very common feature of his recent life.
"Laura has gone, I believe, to meet my brother at the lodge. He has been over to Braeside on business."
"He is selling some land there?"
"I hope so!" said Augustina, with fervour.
"It is time indeed that our poor orphans were housed," said Father Bowles naively. "For the last three months some of our dear nuns have been sleeping in the passages."
"It seems a little hard that there is nobody but Alan to do anything! And how long is it to go on?"
The priest bent forward.
"How long will my stepdaughter let it go on?" said Augustina impatiently. "She will be mistress here directly."
The eyes of her companion flinched, as though something had struck him. But he hastened to say:
"Do not let us doubt, my dear lady, that the soul of Miss Fountain will sooner or later be granted to our prayers."
"But there is not the smallest sign of it," cried Augustina. And she in her turn bent towards her companion, unable to resist the temptation of these priestly ears so patiently inclined to her. "And yet, Father, she isn't happy!—though Alan gives way to her in everything. It's not a bit like a girl in love—you'd expect her to be thinking about her clothes, and the man, and her housekeeping at least—if she won't think about—well! those other things that we should all wish her to think about. While we were at the sea, and Alan used to come down every now and then to stay near us in lodgings, it was all right. They never argued or disputed; they were out all day; and really I thought my brother began to look ten years younger. But now—since we have come back—of course my brother has all his affairs, and all his Church business to look after, and Laura doesn't seem so contented—nearly. It would be different if she cared for any of his interests—but I often think she hates the orphans! She is really naughty about them. And then the Sisters—oh dear!"—Augustina gave a worried sigh—"I don't think the Reverend Mother can have managed it at all well."
Father Bowles said that he understood both from the Reverend Mother and Sister Angela that they had made very great efforts to secure Miss Fountain's friendly opinion.
"Well, it didn't succeed, that's all I can say," replied Augustina fretfully. "And I don't know what they'll do after November."
November had been fixed for the marriage, which was to take place at Cambridge.
Father Bowles hung his hands between his knees and looked down upon them in gentle meditation.
"Your brother seems still very much attached——"
Augustina was silent. In reality she spent half her days in secretly marvelling how such a good man as Alan could allow himself to be so much in love.
"If only someone had ever warned me that this might happen—when I was coming back to live here," she said, in her most melancholy voice; and clasping her thin hands she looked sadly down the garden paths, while her poor head shook and jerked under the influence of the thoughts—so far from agreeable!—with which it was filled.
There was a little silence. Then Father Bowles broke it.
"And our dear Squire does nothing to try and change Miss Fountain's mind towards the Church?" he asked, looking vaguely round the corner all the time.
Nothing—so Augustina declared.
"I say to him—'Alan, give her some books.' Why, they always give people books to read! 'Or get Father Leadham to talk to her.' What's the good of a man like Father Leadham—so learned, and such manners!—if he can't talk to a girl like Laura? But no, Alan won't. He says we must let her alone—and wait God's time!—And there's no altering him, as you know."
Father Bowles pondered a little, then said with a mild perplexity:
"I find, in my books, that a great many instances are recorded of holy wives—or even betrothed—who were instrumental under God in procuring the conversion of their unbelieving husbands—or—or lovers, if I may use such a word to a lady. But I cannot discover any of an opposite nature. There was the pious Nonna, for instance, the mother of the great St. Gregory Nazianzen, who converted her husband so effectually that he became a bishop, and died at the age of ninety."
"What became of her?" inquired Augustina hastily.
The priest hesitated.
"It is a very curious case—and, I understand, much disputed. Some people suppose that St. Gregory was born after his father became a bishop, and many infidel writers have made use of the story for their own malicious purposes. But if it was so, the Church may have allowed such a departure from her law, at a time of great emergency and in a scarcity of pastors. But the most probable thing is that nothing of the kind happened—" he drew himself up with decision—"that the father of St. Gregory had separated from his wife before he became a bishop—and that those writers who record the birth of St. Gregory during the episcopate of his father were altogether mistaken."
"At any rate, I really don't see how it helps us!" said Augustina.
Father Bowles looked a little crestfallen.
"There is one other case that occurs to me," he said timidly. "It is that of St. Amator, Bishop of Auxerre. He was desired by his parents to marry Martha, a rich young lady of his neighbourhood. But he took her aside, and pressed upon her the claims of the ascetic life with such fervour that she instantly consented to renounce the world with him. She therefore went into a convent; and he received the tonsure, and was in due time made Bishop of Auxerre."
"Well, I assure you, I should be satisfied with a good deal less than that in Laura's case!" said Augustina, half angry, half laughing.
Father Bowles said no more. His mind was a curious medley of scraps from many quarters—from a small shelf of books that held a humble place in his little parlour, from the newspapers, and from the few recollections still left to him of his seminary training. He was one of the most complacently ignorant of men; and it had ceased to trouble him that even with Augustina he was no longer of importance.
Mrs. Fountain made him welcome, indeed, not only because he was one of the chief gossips of the neighbourhood, but because she was able to assume towards him certain little airs of superiority that no other human being allowed her. With him, she was the widow of a Cambridge scholar, who had herself breathed the forbidden atmosphere of an English University; she prattled familiarly of things and persons wherewith the poor priest, in his provincial poverty and isolation, could have no acquaintance; she let him understand that by her marriage she had passed into hell-flame regions of pure intellect, that little parish priests might denounce but could never appreciate. He bore it all very meekly; he liked her tea and talk; and at bottom the sacerdotal pride, however hidden and silent, is more than a match for any other.
Augustina lay for a while in a frowning and flushed silence, with a host of thoughts, of the most disagreeable and heterogeneous sort, scampering through her mind. Suddenly she said:
"I don't think Sister Angela should talk as she does! She told me when she heard of the engagement that she could not help thinking of St. Philip Neri, who was attacked by three devils near the Colosseum, because they were enraged by the success of his holy work among the young men of Rome. I asked her whether she meant to call Laura a devil! And she coloured, and got very confused, and said it was so sad that Mr. Helbeck, of all people, should marry an unbelieving wife—and we were taught to believe that all temptations came from evil spirits."
"Sister Angela means well, but she expresses herself very unwarrantably," said the priest sharply. "Now the Reverend Mother tells me that she expected something of the kind, almost from the first."
"Why didn't she tell me?" cried Augustina. "But I don't really think she did, Father. She makes a mistake. How could she? But the dear Reverend Mother—well! you know—though she is so wonderfully humble, she doesn't like anybody to be wiser than she. And I can hardly bear it—I know she puts it all down to some secret sin on Alan's part. She spends a great part of the night—that she told me—in praying for him in the chapel."
Father Bowles sighed.
"I believe that our dear Reverend Mother has often and often prayed for a good wife for Mr. Helbeck. Miss Fountain, no doubt, is a very attractive and accomplished young lady, but—"
"Oh, don't, please, go through the 'buts,'" said Mrs. Fountain with a shrug of despair. "I don't know what's to become of us all—I don't indeed. It isn't as though Laura could hold her tongue. Since we came back I can see her father in her all day long. I had a talk with the Bishop yesterday," she said in a lower voice, looking plaintively at her companion.
He bent forward.
"Oh! he's just, broken-hearted. He can hardly bring himself to speak to Alan about it at all. Of course, Alan will get his dispensation for the marriage. They can't refuse it to him when they give it to so many others. But!"—she threw up her hands—"the Bishop asked me if Laura had been really baptized. I told him there was no doubt at all about it—though it was a very near thing. But her mother did insist that once. And it appears that if she hadn't——"
She looked interrogatively at the priest.
"The marriage could not have taken place," he said slowly. "No Catholic priest could have celebrated it, at least. There would have been a diriment impediment."
"I thought so," said Augustina excitedly, "though I wasn't sure. There are so many dispensations nowadays."
"Ah, but not in such cases as that," said the priest, with an unconscious sigh that rather startled his companion.
Then with a sudden movement he pounced upon something on the further side of the table, nearly upsetting the tea-tray. Augustina exclaimed.
"I beg your pardon," he said humbly; "it was only a nasty fly." And he dropped the flattened creature on the grass.
Both relapsed into a melancholy silence. But several times during the course of it Mrs. Fountain looked towards her companion as though on the point of saying something—then rebuked herself and refrained.
But when the priest had taken his leave, and Mrs. Fountain was left alone in the garden with the flowers and the autumn wind, her thoughts were painfully concerned with quite another part of the episcopal conversation from that which she had reported to Father Bowles. What right had the Bishop or anyone else to speak of "stories" about Laura? Of course, the dear Bishop had been very kind and cautious. He had said emphatically that he did not believe the stories—nor that other report that Mr. Helbeck's sudden proposal of marriage to Miss Fountain had been brought about by his chivalrous wish to protect the endangered name of a young girl, his guest, to whom he had become unwisely attached.
But why should there be "stories," and what did it all mean?
That unlucky Froswick business—and young Mason? But what had Mason to do with it—on that occasion? As Augustina understood, he had seen the child off from Froswick by the 8.20 train—and there was an end of him in the matter. As for the rest of that adventure, no doubt it was foolish of Laura to sit in the quarry till daylight, instead of going to the inn; but all the world might know that she took a carriage at Wryneck, half-way home, about four o'clock in the morning, and left it at the top gate of the park. Why, she was in her room by six, or a little after!
What on earth did the Bishop mean? Augustina fell into a maze of rather miserable cogitation. She recalled her brother's manner and words after his return from the station on the night of the expedition—and then next day, the news!—and Laura's abrupt admission: "I met him in the garden, Augustina, and—well! we soon understood each other. It had to come, I suppose—it might as well come then. But I don't wonder it's all very surprising to you——" And then such a wild burst of tears—such a sudden gathering of the stepmother in the girl's young arms—such a wrestle with feelings to which the bewildered Augustina had no clue.
Was Alan up all that night? Mrs. Denton had said something of the sort. Was he really making up his mind to propose—because people might talk? But why?—how ridiculous! Certainly it must have been very sudden. Mrs. Denton met them coming upstairs a little after six; and Alan told her then.
"Oh, if I only could understand it," thought Augustina, with a little moan. "And now Alan just lives and breathes for her. And she will be here, in my mother's place—Stephen's daughter."
Mrs. Fountain felt the burning of a strange jealousy. Her vanity and her heart were alike sore. She remembered how she had trembled before Alan in his strict youth—how she had apostatised even, merely to escape the demands which the intensity of Alan's faith made on all about him. And now this little chit of twenty, her own stepdaughter, might do and say what she pleased. She would be mistress of Alan, and of the old house. Alan's sister might creep into a corner, and pray!—that was enough for her.
And yet she loved Laura, and clung to her! She felt the humiliation of her secret troubles and envies. Her only comfort lay in her recovered faith; in the rosary to which her hands turned perpetually; in her fortnightly confession; in her visits to the sacrament. The great Catholic tradition beat through her meagre life, as the whole Atlantic may run pulsing through a drifting weed.
* * * * *
Meanwhile, near the entrance gate of the park, on a wooded knoll that overlooked the park wall and commanded the road beyond, Laura Fountain was sitting with the dogs—waiting for Helbeck.
He had been at Whinthorpe all day, on some business in which she was specially interested. The Romney lady was not yet sold. During May and June, Laura had often wondered why she still lingered on the wall. An offer had actually been made—so Augustina said. And there was pressing need for the money that it represented—that, every sojourner in Bannisdale must know. And yet, there still she hung.
Then, with the first day of her engagement, Laura knew why. "You saved her," said Helbeck. "Since that evening when you denounced me for selling her—little termagant!—I have racked my brains to keep her."
And now for some time there had been negotiations going on between Helbeck and a land agent in Whinthorpe for the sale of an outlying piece of Bannisdale land, to which the growth of a little watering-place on the estuary had given of late a new value. Helbeck, in general a singularly absent and ineffective man of business, had thrown himself into the matter with an astonishing energy, had pressed his price, hurried his solicitors, and begged the patience of the nuns—who were still sleeping in doorways and praying for new buildings—till all should be complete.
That afternoon he had ridden over to Whinthorpe in the hopes of signing the contract. He did not yet know—so Laura gathered—with whom he was really treating. The Whinthorpe agent had talked vaguely of "a Manchester gentleman," and Helbeck had not troubled himself to inquire further.
When they were married, would he still sell all that he had, and give to the poor—in the shape of orphanages and reformatories? Laura was almost as unpractical, and cared quite as little about money, as he. But her heart yearned towards the old house; and she already dreamt of making it beautiful and habitable again. As a woman, too, she was more alive to the habitual discomforts of the household than Helbeck himself. Mrs. Denton at least should go! So much he had already promised her. The girl thought with joy of that dismissal, tightening her small lips. Oh! the tyranny of those perpetual grumblings and parsimonies, of those sour unfriendly looks! Economy—yes! But it should be a seemly, a smiling economy in future—one still compatible with a little elegance, a little dignity.
Laura liked to think of her own three hundred a year; liked to feel it of importance in the narrow lot of this impoverished estate. To a rich bridegroom it would have been a trifle for contempt. To Helbeck and herself—though she scarcely believed that he had realised as yet that she possessed a farthing!—it would mean just escape from penury; a few more fires and servants and travellings; enough to ease his life from that hard strain that had tugged at it so long. For her money should not go to nuns or Jesuits!—she would protect it zealously, and not for her own sake.
... Oh! those days by the sea! Those were days for remembering. That tall form always beside her—those eyes so grey and kind—so fiery-kind, often!—revealing to her day by day more of the man, learning a new language for her alone, in all the world, a language that could set her trembling, that could draw her to him, in a humility that was strange and difficult, yet pure joy!—her hand slipping into his, her look sinking beneath his, almost with an appeal to love to let her be. Then—nothing but the sparkling sands and the white-edged waves for company! A little pleasant chat with Augustina; duty walks with her bath chair along the sea-wall; strolls in the summer dusk, while Mrs. Fountain, wrapped in her many shawls, watched them from the balcony; their day had known no other events, no other disturbance than these.
As far as things external were concerned.—Else, each word, each look made history. And though he had not talked much to her of his religion, his Catholic friends and schemes, all that he had said on these things she had been ready to take into a softened heart. His mystic's practice and belief wore still their grand air for her—that aspect of power and mystery which had in fact borne so large a part in the winning of her imagination, the subduing of her will. She did not want then to know too much. She wished the mystery still kept up. And he, on his side, had made it plain to her that he would not attempt to disturb her inherited ideas—so long as she herself did not ask for the teaching and initiation that could only, according to his own deepest conviction, bear fruit in the willing and prepared mind.
But now—— They were at Bannisdale again, and he was once more Helbeck of Bannisdale, a man sixteen years older than she, wound round with the habits and friendship and ideals which had been the slow and firm deposit of those years—habits and ideals which were not hers, which were at the opposite pole from hers, of which she still only dimly guessed the motives and foundations.
"Helbeck of Bannisdale." Her new relation to him, brought back into the old conditions, revealed to her day by day fresh meanings and connotations of the name. And the old revolts, under different, perhaps more poignant forms, were already strong.
What time this religion took! Apart from the daily Mass, which drew him always to Whinthorpe before breakfast, there were the morning and evening prayers, the visits to the Sacrament, the two Masses on Sunday morning, Rosary and Benediction in the evening, and the many occasional services for the marking of Saints'-days or other festivals. Not to speak of all the business that fell upon him as the chief Catholic layman of a large district.
And it seemed to her that since their return home he was more strict, more rigorous than ever in points of observance. She noticed that not only was Friday a fast-day, but Wednesday also was an "abstinence" day; that he looked with disquiet upon the books and magazines that were often sent her by the Friedlands, and would sometimes gently beg her—for the Sisters' sake—to put them out of sight; that on the subject of balls and theatres he spoke sometimes with a severity no member of the Metropolitan Tabernacle could have outdone. What was that phrase he had dropped once as to being "under a rule"? What was "The Third Order of St. Francis"? She had seen a book of "Constitutions" in his study; and a printed card of devout recommendations to "Tertiaries of the Northern Province" hung beside his table. She half thirsted, half dreaded, to know precisely what these things meant to him. But he was silent, and she shrank from asking.
Was he all the more rigid with himself on the religious side of late, because of that inevitable scandal which his engagement had given to his Catholic friends—perhaps because of his own knowledge of the weakening effects of passion on the will? For Laura's imagination was singularly free and cool where the important matters of her own life were concerned. She often guessed that but for the sudden emotion of that miserable night, and their strange meeting in the dawn, he might have succeeded in driving down and subduing his love for her—might have proved himself in that, as in all other matters, a good Catholic to the end. That she should have brought him to her feet in spite of all trammels was food for a natural and secret exultation. But now that the first exquisite days of love were over, the trammels, the forgotten trammels, were all there again—for the fretting of her patience. That his mind was often disturbed, his cheerfulness overcast, that his letters gave him frequently more pain than pleasure, and that a certain inward unrest made his dealings with himself more stern, and his manner to those around him less attractive than before,—these things were constantly plain to Laura. As she dwelt upon them, they carried flame and poison through the girl's secret mind. For they were the evidences of forces and influences not hers—forces that warred with hers, and must always war with hers. Passion on her side began to put forward a hundred new and jealous claims; and at the touch of resistance in him, her own will steeled.
As to the Catholic friends, surely she had done her best! She had called with Augustina on the Reverend Mother and Sister Angela—a cold, embarrassed visit. She had tried to be civil whenever they came to the house. She had borne with the dubious congratulations of Father Bowles. She had never once asked to see any portion of that correspondence which Helbeck had been carrying on for weeks with Father Leadham, persuaded though she was, from its effects on Helbeck's moods and actions, that it was wholly concerned with their engagement, and with the problems and difficulties it presented from the Catholic point of view.
She was preparing even to welcome with politeness that young Jesuit who had neglected his dying mother, against whom—on the stories she had heard—her whole inner nature cried out....
* * * * * The sound of a horse approaching. Up sprang the dogs, and she with them.
Helbeck waved his hand to her as he came over the bridge. Then at the gate he dismounted, seeing Wilson in the drive, and gave his horse to the old bailiff.
"Cross the bridge with me," he said, as he joined her, "and let us walk home the other side of the river. Is it too far?"
His eyes searched her face—with the eagerness of one who has found absence a burden. She shook her head and smiled. The little frown that had been marring the youth of her pretty brow smoothed itself away. She tripped beside him, feeling the contagion of his joy—inwardly repentant—and very happy.
But he was tired and disappointed by the day's result. The contract was not signed. His solicitor had been summoned in haste to make the will of a neighbouring magnate; some of the last formalities of his own business had been left uncompleted; and in short the matter was postponed for at least a day or two.
"I wish it was done," he said, sighing—and Laura could only feel that the responsibilities and anxieties weighing upon him seemed to press with unusual strength.
A rosy evening stole upon them as they walked along the Greet.—The glow caught the grey walls of the house on the further bank—lit up the reaches of the stream—and the bare branch work of a great ruined tree in front of them. Long lines of heavy wood closed the horizon on either hand, shutting in the house, the river, and their two figures.
"How solitary we are here!" he said, suddenly looking round him. "Oh! Laura, can you be happy—with poverty—and me?"
"Well, I shan't read my prayer-book along the river!—and I shan't embroider curtains for the best bedroom—alack! Perhaps a new piano might keep me quiet—I don't know!"